Our next Garden Museum Journal tells the story of Elphick & Son Ltd., ‘seedsmen of Lewes’. Once frequented by Duncan Grant and Leonard Woolf, Elphick’s was a famous garden supplies business, proudly run by five generations of the Elphick family over 200 years.
In our upcoming Journal for Friends, Elphick’s story is told by a journey through the business’s archive. Tony Elphick, the final owner of the firm and also a Life Friend of the Garden Museum, generously donated this archive to the Museum for posterity after the shop closed down.
One of the prizes within the Elphick’s archive is a collection of photos by a lost genius of Edwardian garden photography, Charles Jones. Born in Wolverhampton in 1866, Jones was a gifted professional gardener who worked at several private estates.
At Ote Hall in Sussex, his talents were recorded in ‘The Gardener’s Chronicle’, 1905:
“The present gardener, Charles Jones, has had a large share in the modelling of the gardens as they now appear, for on all sides can be seen evidence of his work in the making of flowerbeds and borders and in the planting of fruit trees. Mr Jones is quite an enthusiastic fruit grower and his delight in his well-trained trees was readily apparent…. The lack of extensive glasshouses is no deterrent to Mr Jones in producing supplies of choice fruit and flowers”
Between 1895 and 1910 Jones experimented with photography and produced a series of gold-toned gelatin silver prints of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. He photographed his subjects isolated from nature, against neutral or dark backdrops. These works show a clear and natural command for composition and tone.
A skilled printer, the style adopted by Charles Jones features a delicate play on arrangement, light and focus, illustrating an unprecedented level of skill for the time and foreshadows the work of later photographers. The photographs in the Elphick’s are known to be originals by his initials on the reverse.
Little of his work was published during his lifetime, though some of his photographs were featured in Elphick’s seed catalogues. The seed company had a bold and innovative marketing strategy, at the centre of which were their catalogues with their brightly coloured covers and distinctive typography. Jones’ photographs greatly enhanced these beautifully designed booklets.
His work was unacknowledged during his lifetime and after his death in 1959 it fell into obscurity. In 1981 a trunk of his photographs was purchased at a market in Bermondsey and he was rediscovered by the photographic world. Jones’ photographs now sell at auction for upwards of £5000, and have been exhibited in several institutions including the V&A in London, the Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco, and the Musée de Elysée in Lausanne. The Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones, a book of his photographs, was also published in 2016.
How lucky that in the gift of the Elphick’s archive, some of Jones’ photographs lay in wait!
The Elphick’s Seeds Journal will be published later this year.
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